The one thing you should definitely know before going to live abroad
"When I found out that I got accepted for the Erasmus scholarship in my dream country, I was out of my mind happy and I was sure that the year ahead would be the best year of my life. However, after the initial excitement was gone, I started feeling tired all the time and I was surprised to find that although I am generally a very patient person, I became irritated and frustrated very easily and I reached a point when I just did not feel like interacting with locals any more" – this is how Marta, an ex-Erasmus describes her experience trying to fit into the target culture during her time abroad. And she is not alone with her story.
Although the mass movement of young people into different countries for study, work or volunteering purposes is a pretty recent phenomenon, anthropologists have long described the unease, tension and anxiety that every expat has to go through in their course of acculturation into a new culture. As scary as it might sound, it is a perfectly natural process and understanding why you feel the way you feel will help you to successfully overcome the year abroad blues and to grow as a person.
Cultural Studies experts have described five different phases people moving to a new culture go through in their subconscious efforts to adjust to their new reality. The first phase is called the honeymoon phase, which normally lasts for the first one or two months and is usually characterised by the constant feeling of euphoria. Everything is new and exciting and the difficulties arising from the cultural differences seem interesting and funny. It is the phase when you will want to meet everybody, take lots of pictures and try everything new in your host country.
However, soon the fun and excitement give way to what researchers describe as cultural shock. Cultural shock occurs when sojourners run into situations they cannot understand more and more often, they start feeling culturally inadequate and they are constantly forced to measure their old culture against the new one. These unreflected experiences manifest themselves in the feelings of frustration, helplessness and confusion and often lead to fatigue, withdrawal from community life and in severe cases, to depression. This is the phase when you will feel homesick all the time, start wondering if moving abroad was a good decision and constantly complain about the host culture.
Although to a certain extent, everybody will experience cultural shock, but how it will affect your everyday life only depends on you. It is important to give ourselves enough time to rest and reflect on the cultural differences experienced. It's a good idea to talk to other sojourners and discuss why certain behaviours of local people make you feel uncomfortable and ask for people's advice who lived in the country before to understand the underlying reasons for the differences.
The good news is that cultural shock is only temporary and with time – normally after 5-6 months in the target country - people acquire new problem solving techniques and learn how to function adequately in the new culture. This restores their confidence and their willingness to socialise. The acculturation process becomes complete after about a year in the target culture when the sojourners do not only learn to function in the new society, but gain a thorough understanding of the culture's underlying values and beliefs and start feeling at home in the new culture.
For this reason, upon returning to their home countries, people might experience a reverse cultural shock when they need to relearn their own culture that now they see through different glasses and evaluate in view of the knowledge that things can be done differently. However, this phase is usually faster and easier to overcome. Once your acculturation process is complete, you will not only be able to function in two different cultures, but you will become a lot more open to differences in general and you will have a lot more skills at your disposal for a successful and happy life.
Written and translated by Judit Molnár